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Bangor, Maine: Easygoing, scenically blessed and, yes, Stephen King

The local cottage industry might be Stephen King, but Bangor, Maine, offers plenty besides

You know Bangor, that little city in central Maine?

The little city that's home to Stephen King?

Ah, yes, now you know it.

The king of the horror novel, whose works include "Carrie," "The Shining" and "Misery," has put Bangor on the map.

If you doubt that, consider this anecdote from the U.K. office of BuzzFeed, a popular Internet media company. It asked its staff to identify something noteworthy about each U.S. state, and for Maine, what came to the Brits' minds? Stephen King.

Bangor isn't his birthplace — that's Portland — but he attended the University of Maine about 10 miles north of Bangor, where we were classmates. Everyone on campus, it seemed, knew who he was — a campus leader and anti-Vietnam War activist who was often featured in the school newspaper.

After graduation, he stayed in Maine for a few years, then moved to Colorado for a year and spent time in Britain. He and his family eventually settled here in 1980.

Bangor is his home, and it's also his muse: It has inspired several of his books and was a film location for several movies based on his works.

Not surprisingly, when out-of-town friends visit, they always ask me to take them on a tour of King haunts, especially a drive past his house, which is the color of dried blood. I always oblige, but Bangor is more than just Stephen King sites. I show them some of my little city's offbeat museums, nature sites and one-of-a-kind eateries.

Most of all, I like to give them a feel for what's kept me in Bangor: its easygoing, live-and-let-live ambience. Of course, Bangor's easy access to some of the world's most beautiful shores and mountains doesn't hurt.

But there's no getting around King. He's a bit of a cottage industry: Commercial King-themed tours are available, including one conducted by a recognized authority on all things King.

Among the high points of any tour: some of the houses whose occupants may not be of this earth, a historic water tower and a truck stop. They're all part of the fabric of Bangor, a town that beckons you to stay for a spell.

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Bats guard the gate: On the sidewalk in front of Stephen King's home

Stephen King's house practically screams "Boo!"

Forget the idyllic vision of the Maine cottage with its white picket fences. King's Bangor manse has a black wrought-iron fence embellished with spread-winged bats and spiderwebs.

It's a magnet for King fans. In years of driving past the home, I can't remember a time when there wasn't a fan (or two or more) on the sidewalk outside the batty gate, cameras fairly smoking from taking photos of the 23-room Italianate villa.

The house is also a magnet for a certain black cat named Monty. He doesn't belong to King, guide Stu Tinker of SK Tours told me. Monty lives a few blocks away but will turn up at King's gate, then amble up to the writer's porch for a nap. Must be the vibe.

The house, built in 1858, stands on West Broadway, a leafy street lined with the 19th century mansions of lumber barons. In the 1800s, Bangor was known as "the lumber capital of the world"; then its timber trade slowed considerably as logging headed west. But Bangor supplied California with timber during the Gold Rush. There's even a Bangor, Calif., founded in 1855 and named by settlers from Bangor, Maine.

King bought the home in 1980 for $135,000. As he pondered the purchase, he reportedly asked the previous owner whether the house was haunted.

She is said to have responded: "Well, sir, if you want the house to be haunted, you're certainly the one that could do it."

From this villa, it was only five blocks — but light years away in ambience — from the run-down digs he occupied as a struggling writer in the early 1970s. The dingy wood house at 14 Sanford St. is still on Google Maps, but it was torn down a few years ago. There King, his wife, Tabitha, and their two children rented a four-room, second-floor apartment in 1973.

It was in that apartment that King got the call that would change his life: The paperback rights for "Carrie" — the novel about a bullied high school girl who ends up using her telekinetic powers against her tormentors — had sold for $400,000.

King was on his way.

Nowadays he owns a winter home in Sarasota, Fla. (Bangor's winters make snowbirds of many residents), and a summer place in Center Lovell, a mountain- and lakes-filled area in western Maine near the New Hampshire border.

But Bangor still has a hold on King. In a speech to the Bangor Historical Society in 1983, as he was working on his novel "It," he explained his attraction to Bangor, saying it felt "like the right place."

The book, King told the society, is about "a city named Derry which any native of this city [Bangor] will recognize almost at once as Bangor" — although to my knowledge Bangor has no evil creature that terrorizes children.

For King, part of Bangor's appeal is the townspeople's respect for his privacy. Over the years, I've seen him several times at Nicky's Cruisin' Diner, a place that's frozen in the '50s and '60s.

I once asked one of the longtime waitresses at Nicky's — where comfort food is king — whether customers ever pestered the author.

"None of the locals bother him," she said. "People here leave the guy alone."

Yet another reason Bangor is King's kind of town: The place gives him ideas. Maybe it has to do with the people. They're friendly but reserved, which can seem mysterious. Or it could be Bangor's rough-and-tumble, lumber-laden past and all the rowdiness that goes with a boom town. (Think bars and bloodshed.)

As King himself once said, "The streets fairly clang with stories."

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The king of King tours? This may be it

As if his books didn't do this often enough, SK Tours of Maine offers a Stephen King tour that will get your heart pounding.

There's nothing quite like hopping into a van painted with the face of Pennywise, the evil clown from King's book "It," to put you in the mood for hunting down the local nooks and crannies that have figured in the horrormeister's works.

Tours are led by Bangor native Stu Tinker, who has had King on his mind for about 40 years. Tinker, an early admirer of King's books, and his wife, Penney, formerly ran a Bangor bookshop that dealt only in King books and memorabilia.

Now he's a guide to the writer's Bangor stamping grounds.

My husband, Jerry, and I decided to take the tour and were joined by a couple from Cincinnati, who were rabid King fans. As Tinker shepherded us to about 30 area sites related to the author's works, he rattled off answers to questions the couple had been pondering for years.

They were in horror heaven.

As for me, I was surprised by how much I learned. Landmarks and buildings that I had been driving past for years took on new meaning once I was no longer oblivious to their relevance.

Tinker met King in 1974 at a book signing for "Carrie," King's first novel. "[I] really got to know him from 1990 on, after we bought Betts bookstore," Tinker said. The Tinkers ran the bookstore until 2009, then sold it to a customer, who moved it to Connecticut and now runs it as an Internet-only store.

"We wouldn't have been anything without Steve," Tinker said.

After giving special-request tours to researchers and fans for nearly two decades through his bookstore, Tinker started SK Tours of Maine about five years ago. Tours are at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Three-hour tours cost $55 for one or $80 for two, with $25 for an additional person (www.sk-tours.com).

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Bangor, Maine, sites with the eerie glow of a Stephen King connection

Here are some of the Bangor-area landmarks that have inspired Stephen King's books or have appeared in films based on his works. You can find these on your own or see them on tours given by SK Tours of Maine.

The Thomas Hill Standpipe, a water tower built in 1897, was featured in the novel "It," about a creature, often appearing in the form of a clown, that preys on the children of a small Maine city. King wrote parts of the book while sitting on a bench near the structure. Some locals say the standpipe is haunted by a child's ghost. A friend who once lived near the standpipe said she had never seen a ghost but added, "There's some kind of feeling there."

Mount Hope Cemetery. This moody, tree-shrouded burial place was the setting for several scenes in "Pet Sematary," a 1989 movie in which King had a role as a minister. The film was based on King's 1983 book of the same name about an ancient burial ground with the power to terrify.

The Waterworks building, which dates to 1875, starred in the film "Graveyard Shift" as a textile mill infested with monster rats. The real-life building was abandoned for years but now has been turned into low-income housing. The 1990 "Graveyard Shift" was based on King's 1970 short story of the same name.

Dysart's Truck Stop & Restaurant, on Coldbrook Road in nearby Hermon, about eight miles west of Bangor. This was the inspiration for King's short story "Trucks," about monster trucks coming alive at a truck stop and starting to behave like, well, monsters. That story went on to spawn the King-directed film "Maximum Overdrive" from 1986. Dysart's is popular with locals and their families and with big-rig drivers. Its range of homemade comfort fare is as diverse as Maine blueberry pancakes and salads. Portions could be called monster-sized.

The Bangor Opera House (now housing the Penobscot Theatre Company) wasn't a filming location, but it hosted the 1984 world premiere of the film "Firestarter," based on King's book of the same name about a young girl's pyrokinetic skills and a secret government agency that seeks to turn her into a weapon. Among the attendees: Drew Barrymore, the film's then-child star.

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Hobnob with the ghosts of Bangor, Maine

If Stephen King's villa has given you a taste for the supernatural, some of Bangor's supposedly spirit-infested homes will help complete the banquet.

The 1936 Thomas Hill House, home of the Bangor Historical Society and a museum of the town, is said to have some ethereal tenants. (The house is almost around the corner from the now-demolished, down-and-out digs where a struggling writer named Stephen King lived in 1973. It's probably just a coincidence.)

"The Hill House is haunted, I believe," said Matt Bishop, current curator and interim director of the historical society. "Many strange things happen, and strange feelings are felt often. Items are misplaced and searched for, [and] eventually they are found usually where they were supposed to be but hours or days later.

"People have claimed to see a lady and gentleman figures as well as a cat," he said.

Upon occasion, he has shut off all the lights and left, only to see the office lights go back on, he said.

Historical society staffers have told me over the years that one of the ghosts is likely Sam Dale, onetime owner of the house and mayor of Bangor from 1863-66 and again in 1871. His wife, Matilda Dale, who died in 1894, also seems to be one of the spirits who hangs around, perhaps because she wanted to keep an eye on Sam even in the afterlife.

The neighborhood seems to be a hangout for apparitions. Directly across the street from the historical society sits the Isaac Farrar Mansion (1845), which is on the National Register of Historic Places and said to be haunted by a child and a servant named Angela.

Angela was a nanny to the family's youngest son. One day, she left the little boy alone for a few moments and in that brief time, he choked and died. Distraught, Angela went to her room and hanged herself, said Bishop. When you visit the mansion, he said, "Her room is one of the colder rooms in the house."

Want to hobnob with the ghosts of downtown Bangor? The Bangor Historical Society offers ghost tours in October. This year, the "Ghostly Bangor" walk is at 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday. Tours last about an hour and cost $10. Info: http://www.bit.ly/10f0JC7. Reservations are not required.

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IF YOU GO

THE BEST WAY TO BANGOR, MAINE

From LAX, American, Delta, United and US Airways offer connecting service (change of planes) to Bangor. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $644, including all taxes and fees.

WHERE TO STAY

Hampton Inn, 261 Haskell Road, Bangor; (855) 271-3622. The hotel is about three miles from Stephen King's house. It's also near Mt. Hope Cemetery, the setting for several scenes from the film "Pet Sematary," based on King's book of the same name. Doubles from $149.

Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway, 500 Main St., Bangor; (877) 779-7771. Casinos and gaming might not be your thing, but the hotel has a front-row seat of the city's fabled Paul Bunyon statue. Doubles from $129.

Charles Inn, 20 Broad St., Bangor; (207) 992-2820. Might have a spirit or two, but it definitely has artworks; it calls itself Bangor's first art hotel. Doubles from $89.

WHERE TO EAT

Friars' Bakehouse, 21 Central St., Bangor; (207) 947-3770. Several Franciscan brothers operate the restaurant, which features lunches, soups, breads and desserts (including whoopie pies, which are the state of Maine's official treat). From $2 to $7.75.

Nicky's Cruisin' Diner, 957 Union St., Bangor, Maine; (207) 942-3430. A popular spot for locals, with a range of comfort foods. Prices from $3.49 for a hot dog to $23.99 for a seafood platter.

Dysart's Truck Stop, 530 Cold Brook Road, Hermon, Maine (about eight miles west of Bangor); (207) 942-4878. The place that inspired King's short story "Trucks" is a favorite of locals as well as truck drivers for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Prices top out at $24.99 for a fisherman's platter.

TO LEARN MORE

Visit Greater Bangor, (800) 916-6673.

 

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